NEKRASOVKA, Ukraine - Ukrainian troops moved from house to house yesterday in five villages where a virulent strain of bird flu has been detected, removing domestic birds for a mass cull.
Emergency Ministry troops, covered from head to toe in plastic and wearing masks, rounded up squawking chickens, ducks and geese, stuffed them in plastic bags and tossed them in the back of dump trucks in the Crimea peninsula.
Villagers could do little but watch and head for administrative offices to receive compensation for every head lost. Chickens, for instance, were set at the equivalent of US$3 ($4.30).
"What can you do? A bird is just a bird," said one elderly villager, her head wrapped in a brown shawl.
"If it becomes ill, you can't feel sorry about it. The main thing is to preserve human life."
Authorities imposed tough measures on Saturday to contain the outbreak, the first in the country.
But villagers told reporters their poultry had been hit by disease for more than two months without any official action being taken. Families had continued to eat meat from what were deemed to be healhty birds.
Police and Interior Ministry troops stood alongside barriers and handwritten "Quarantine" signs outside 3km exclusion zones around the villages, though some residents were still passing in and out.
Villagers were being vaccinated against human forms of flu.
Further 10km monitoring zones were in place in the peninsula jutting into the Black Sea -- a major stopping point for migratory birds heading south for the winter.
Agriculture Minister Oleksander Baranivsky on Saturday identified the virus as H5, and said it was highly lethal to birds and may be dangerous to humans.
Official data showed more than 2,500 birds had died since Friday and samples were sent to laboratories in Britain and Italy for further analysis to see if the virus is the deadly H5N1 strain.
Mechanical diggers prepared pits to accommodate the remains of the birds, due to be incinerated with napalm -- stored from the Soviet era and brought to the region in drums aboard trucks.
Other soldiers chopped logs to build make-shift bath-houses for servicemen -- to ensure they washed regularly.
Ukraine had previously been declared free of bird flu, though the deadly H5N1 virus had been discovered not far from its borders in Romania and Russia. New cases of bird flu were detected in southeastern Romania at the weekend and officials said the birds had most likely contracted the H5N1 strain.
Ukraine's top veterinary surgeon, Petro Verbytsky, repeated that no humans had been affected and said contagion from the virus was unlikely.
"The question now is that of dealing with a different sort of flu," he said, suggesting that human forms of flu were the priority for medics. "There is 1,000 times less chance of becoming ill from bird flu than there is from tuberculosis."
The H5N1 virus is endemic in poultry in parts of Asia where it has killed almost 70 people since 2003 and prompted the slaughter of millions of domestic birds.
Many scientists fear H5N1 could kill millions of people if it mutates into a form that passes easily among humans. But so far, there is no sign the virus has changed in this way.